Sunday, May 4, 2014

Is A Guided Tour Vacation Right For You?

As we approach the summer vacation season, I'm exploring things to think about when considering a guided tour.  I'm referring to vacation tours of several days or weeks rather than the two hour tour taken at a tourist attraction or the highlights of a city tour.

Or the three hour tour that left Gilligan and friends stranded on that island for several years.  :)

Some travelers find the sight of those large tour buses spewing out hoards of vacationers at tourist attractions enough to make them cringe.  Others love getting on the tour bus and not having to worry about planning an itinerary, making hotel reservations, or booking transportation…especially in a foreign country.

How do you know if a tour is right for you?  Finding a tour that meets your travel needs might be easier than you think.  You just have to ask a few pertinent questions.

Do you know anyone who recommends this tour?  Just because a particular tour got a good review, or rave comments on one of the travel websites, doesn't mean that your taste agrees with those who left comments.  But you know your friends and family, know their taste and whether it agrees with yours.

Will the tour help with a language barrier?  Possibly you can get by with a guide book and a foreign language phrase book, but not being able to communicate in the local language can prevent you from seeing some place you really wanted to visit.  And a tour guide can definitely expedite border crossings.  Finding a good tour operator can be the difference between an enjoyable trip and a disappointing one.

Does the tour solve transportation problems?  In the developed world, most tourists feel comfortable renting a car and going out on their own.  But in the developing nations transportation can be the biggest challenge you'll face on your travels.  With dangerous and in some cases even non-existent roads, driving yourself can be quite impractical.  Other times, a car is not even an option with alternate transportation being very expensive.

Does the tour operator share your ideals?  Even though travel expands our minds and challenges our beliefs, a tour operator who runs their business in a way that truly offends your sensibilities can totally ruin the experience.  This is particularly important if you're seeking out cultural tour experiences.

Does the tour offer more than your guidebook?  Sometimes a guidebook is all you need to experience what a location has to offer.  But for other locations a tour guide can often give you a deeper understanding than you can get from a guide book or pamphlet.

Who is the guide?  Taking a tour where the owners of the tour company are your guides can provide a far better experience for the traveler than one of the massive tour operators.  The small operators can't afford to develop a bad reputation while the large companies often have transient, part-time help that doesn't care as much as the small business owner does.

How big is the tour group?  When it comes to tours…size matters.  Small groups allow you to have a more personalized experience while large groups keep the costs lower and allow you to meet more people.  Know your preferences before you pay out that non-refundable deposit.

How much free time will you have?  Even those travelers who always prefer guided tours to independent travel want some free time while on the tour.  Before booking your tour, find out how much free time is included in the schedule.

Where will you be staying?  Make sure the level of accommodations matches what you're looking for from the tour.  If you're wanting a back to nature roughing it experience, you don't want to find yourself in a chain hotel every night.  If you want a pampered experience, then a mediocre motel each night won't give that to you.
And then there's the luxury roughing it combination

Even if you are one of those travelers who don't want to have anything to do with a guided tour, there are some parks and historical sites that only allow people to visit if they are part of a licensed tour group.  Getting beyond the visitor center of Denali National Park in Alaska and Hearst Castle State Park in California are two that come to mind.

Have you ever taken a guided tour vacation on a large tour bus?  What did you like or dislike about the experience?

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